Sensory integration is the way we take in and make use of information about the environment around us through our senses. Our brains are constantly receiving and processing little bits of information about what we are touching, how we are positioned in space, how we are moving in relation to gravity, as well as what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting. The sensory input then gets organized and integrated and is used to develop and nourish the brain. When sensory information is not processed well, children have difficulty directing behavior, learning, coping with stress, and developing a positive self-image.
If you suspect your child has difficulties with sensory integration, here are some suggestions on how you can help:
- Recognize the problem. Early detection and intervention by a trained specialist offer the best chances of reducing the effects of poor sensory integration on the child’s life.
- Encourage a positive self-image and reduce feelings of frustration or inadequacy. Recognize that your child’s difficulties are caused by physical dysfunction involving chemicals and impulses in the brain. Often the results of the problem manifest in behavior, mood, and the child’s ability to learn. However, keeping in mind that the cause of the problem is beyond the child’s control (just like a cold or broken bone) can help you cope with negative behaviors while continuing to provide the love and support your child needs. It is appropriate to tell your child when he or she behaves in a way that is not acceptable, but be sure to comment on the behavior, not the child. Use a disciplinary style that is consistent and sensitive to your child’s nervous system. Try to foresee situations that will push your child to lose control, and guide your child to participate in activities that will help soothe the nervous system when an emotional crisis appears to be on the horizon.
- Control the environment. Provide structure and organization of your child’s time and environment. Create an environment that provides tactile experiences (textures, pressure, etc.) that your child finds comfortable and calming. Provide plenty of opportunities to engage in the types of movement and stimulation that most help to organize his or her unique brain. Watch and listen to your child to learn which sensory experiences he or she needs.
- Help your child learn to play. Children with sensory integrative dysfunction tend to have less varied play, and may have difficulties playing with peers. Show your child imaginative ways to move the body, interact with toys and the environment, and play with others. Simple, durable toys and games often allow for the most flexibility and variety of play experiences, as well as presenting greater opportunity for success. Most importantly, make sure your expectations match your child’s ability and that your efforts are rooted in encouraging your child to follow his or her inner drive for play. Bring a sense of fantasy and creativity to make play truly fun and rewarding.
- Seek Professional Help. If you suspect your child has difficulties with sensory integration, do not wait to speak to a trained professional, such as an qualified occupational therapist. Your child is not likely to outgrow the problem, and furthermore, it is possible that the difficulties will compound as the child gets older and has more expectations placed on his or her performance.
The following resources may be helpful:
Sensory Integration and the Child by A. Jean Ayres
The Out of Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz
-Holly Restani MS, OTS & Vibha Pathak, OTD, OTR/L